Bucher has enjoyed every one of the last 25 years.
Growing up in her native Germany, there was never any doubt that Margit Bucher would spend much of her life outside.
“I come from a family of avid hikers,” Bucher says. “I always played in the woods. The longest time I ever spent with a doll was when I gave one a haircut. I was always better at climbing trees and roaming the outdoors.”
Bucher came to Durham in 1982 as a graduate exchange student at Duke University. “I never had any intention of staying,” she says. A year abroad turned into another and another and she received a Masters in Natural Resource Ecology.
Coming to TNC
She joined the Conservancy in 1987, working in stewardship. The Conservancy had no fire program. She credits her boss at the time, Carol Mayes, with starting the program. ”We were pretty ragtag at the beginning with a few drip torches and hand tools to control the fire and limited training,” she explains. “Now, we have fire engines and our fire crews have to meet the highest professional standards.”
The early TNC fire practitioners were also working under the premise that ecosystems had become fire dependent as a natural process, driven by lightning-ignited fires. But, the science didn’t bear that out.
“Fire history, which looks at things such as charcoal and pollen records, shows that there was a frequency that is not sustainable by lightning strikes alone,” she explains. “Some plants such as Venus flytraps need fire more frequently than what you would see just from lightning strikes, which also leads us to believe that something other than just nature was putting fire on the land thousands of years ago. People had to be involved. Some of these fires were being lit by early land managers.”
An Inspiration to Others
Bucher has also developed a reputation as a teacher. Several of the people who once worked for her in North Carolina have gone on to lengthy careers in the Conservancy.
Judy Dunscomb, the Virginia Chapter’s Science Director, was hired by Bucher as a summer intern 20y years ago. “I took a job with TNC, because I wanted to live with my boyfriend for the summer,” says Dunscomb. “Two weeks into the job, I could not imagine doing anything else with my life.”
She credits Bucher with the lighting that spark. “She would point us in a given direction and just say ‘go.’ There was a lot of opportunity to explore – to learn with her support,” Dunscomb explains. “She was incredibly energetic, knowledgeable and fearless, jumping into everything with great enthusiasm. Margit is one of the most influential people in my life, and I know that I’m not the only one.”
Sam Lindblom is another of Bucher’s former interns. Today, he is fire program director for the Virginia Chapter. In 1995, he worked a summer as Bat Cave Preserve steward. “About half of the time, I was doing stuff that was more education than work,” he explains. “I was learning what the trade was about. She set me up well to stay with TNC. She opened doors for me, and she continued to do that, even when I moved to Virginia.”
Lindblom says one reason for Bucher’s success is her credibility and professionalism. He cites one memory to illustrate the latter. “She came to help us burn Warm Springs in 2007. We were really pushing the envelope at a thousand acre burn, with helicopters. It was a real stretch for us. Margit was nervous about the whole thing. She told me ‘you might be doing more than are you prepared to do.’ A couple of years later, she called me out of the blue and said ‘I’ve been thinking a lot about back then and I want to apologize for questioning what you were doing.’ That meant a lot to me – that she had the professional and personal strength to call me. She has done a lot for me over the here, but this just illustrates the kind of person that she is.”
Being a petite woman has never gotten in Bucher’s way. Dunscomb recalls a visit to the Green Swamp when Bucher plunged into impenetrable thick vegetation. “I thought, are we ever going to see her again – she slipped among those shrubs that were twice as tall as her, with just a slight rippling of the vegetation. That was just classic Margit. I’m sure it took a lot of physical effort, but she made it look like nothing.”
Bucher admits that being a woman in a field largely dominated by men has been occasionally challenging. “If you are woman doing outside work, then in some ways you have to be a little tougher. That just comes with the territory, if you are working in a field that is nonstandard for women.”
Going Forward with Fire in NC
Bucher expects the fire program to continue evolving. “Our management goals need to be focused on making habitats more resilient to persist into the future, rather than just mimicking natural disturbances. The challenge will be how we adopt our burn regimes and management goals to a changing climate – allowing plants and animals to adapt and migrate. We need to recognize that nature evolves. Longleaf pine savannas have probably changed significantly since the last Ice Age and will look different in the future.”
In the short term, she enjoys g the almost immediate return that controlled burning brings to the landscape. “There a huge reward in seeing what comes after fire. There is rejuvenation. You see flowers and butterflies. At the Green Swamp, you see all these orchids and carnivorous plants.”
She is particularly heartened by a recent visit to the Conservancy’s Bluff Mountain Preserve in Ashe County. “That’s the reward,” she says, pointing to a picture she took of mountain flowers blooming brightly 10 months after the Conservancy’s first large successful mountain burn.